‘At some point, we have to stand up’
By Gary Lloyd
TRUSSVILLE – Jodie Real has been leaving the lights on at night.
Since news emerged that a Hewitt-Trussville High School student was suspended this month after making terroristic threats Sept. 16, almost a year after he created a “death notebook” that contained the names of 37 classmates, a notebook that did not come to light to authorities until this month, Real and her family’s lives have been turned upside down.
“We are in terror at our house,” said Real, one of dozens who spoke in front of a packed Trussville City Council meeting Sept. 27.
Real’s child’s name was in that notebook. No one in her house has slept.
“Everybody should be able to go to sleep, and we can’t sleep,” she said, before the emotions became too much and she walked away from the microphone.
Trussville Mayor Buddy Choat, speaking the morning of Sept. 27 at a press conference in the interim city council chambers – formerly the Trussville City Schools Board of Education boardroom – discussed recent safety concerns within Trussville City Schools. During the Trussville Police Department investigation of the recent terroristic threats, it was learned that the same student in October 2021 had created a “death notebook” that contained the names of 37 classmates.
“The police department was never notified by [the school] administration last year when the death notebook was found,” said Police Chief Eric Rush. “The death notebook contained the names of 37 fellow students with five of them having specific ways to die. There were multiple verbal threats about shooting up the school by this same student this year. These threats are what brought the notebook to our attention by the school.”
Trussville City Schools Superintendent Pattie Neill released a statement Sept. 26 but did not speak publicly Sept. 27 at the morning press conference or at the evening city council meeting.
“The student was brought to the counselor’s office and met with the principal and counselor,” Neill said. “The notebook was based on the Netflix series ‘Death Note’ where a person can imagine someone’s death and supernaturally make it happen – for example the person in the notebook might be eaten by ants, hit by a bus, hit by a ladder, drowning, etc. It was determined at that time by the principal and counselor and based on the information available that the notebook was fantasy and no further action was necessary other than confiscate the book and monitor the behavior of the student. The student completed the 2021-22 school year with no further disciplinary problems.”
Late in the afternoon Sept. 27, Hewitt-Trussville High School Principal Tim Salem was placed on administrative leave. Assistant Principal Joy Young was named acting principal.
“Safety remains a first priority, and your students have been and will continue to be safe at HTHS,” Neill said in an email message to parents.
Salem, in a message to HTHS staff, said he wants everyone to continue to “stay the course with teaching and learning.”
“It is an honor and privilege to work with all of you and I know that our students and parents are in good hands,” Salem wrote.
In her statement, Neill said Salem and the school resource officer, in light of the events in Uvalde, Texas, implemented “numerous safety protocols for the 22-23 school year.”
“As such, when the events of last week came to light, the potential threat was acted upon immediately and the threat assessment protocol was fully implemented,” Neill said.
Neill, Rush, Salem, city council members and Board of Education members met Sept. 26 to discuss the situation.
“Mr. Salem acknowledged this mistake and recognizes the error in not involving the SRO for threat assessment protocol in 2021,” Neill said. “In hindsight, the SRO and central office administration should have been made aware of this book and TV series so the threat assessment protocol could be fully implemented.”
City Councilman Ben Short was at that meeting. He wrote an open letter to the Board of Education, more than 700 words, on his Facebook page. He wrote that it had “become clear that the Trussville City Schools System didn’t notify law enforcement last year when they became aware of death notebook that contained threatened physical harm to other students.”
“Our city provides sworn law enforcement officers in each of our schools to keep our students safe and they are unable to provide the level of security that is required of them when school administration fails to notify or work with the police when situations concerning threatened bodily harm arise,” Short wrote. “Our officers are not there simply for the perception of safety and I feel the school administration and law enforcement need to have constructive dialogue to ensure that everyone is on the same page in handling scenarios involving threats.”
The word “communication” filled Trussville on Sept. 27 more than U.S. Highway 11 traffic. Choat, in his morning press conference, said Trussville supports and will continue to support public safety and school safety as top priorities.
“We cannot do that without communication, and that’s where this occurred,” he said.
Choat said city officials and Trussville City Schools “have to have an understanding of we’re in this together.”
“It is not us against them,” he said. “They’re part of us and we’re part of them, and we’re in this together.”
When asked why Neill and Board of Education members were not part of the morning press conference, Choat said Neill had offered to do a joint press conference, but he decided to go in a different direction.
“She offered yesterday to do a joint conference,” he said. “I felt that it was better they have their conference, they take responsibility for what they’re going to do and how they want to do it. I wanted to be separate in case there’s a question of where the city stands in this issue. So, it was really my suggestion yesterday that we do separate interviews.”
As of late Sept. 27, no Trussville City Schools press conference was apparently scheduled. A meeting of a couple city council members, Choat, Neill and the Board of Education was scheduled for 8 a.m. Sept. 28.
“Improving our communication, I think, is key here,” Short said at the press conference.
WATCH: The full press conference
In August 2020, the Trussville City Council and Board of Education approved a memorandum of understanding outlining what should happen when any threatening incident happens on school property or at a school-sponsored event. In part, the MOU states that SROs “shall be responsible for carrying out all duties and responsibilities of a law enforcement officer and shall remain at all times under the control, through the chain of command, of TPD.” Rush said that MOU was supposed to be adhered to and was not. There are no repercussions for violating it.
“I think the violation in itself was bad enough,” he said. “It was there and it was known.”
The city council meeting at 6 p.m. was essentially an encore to the 10:30 a.m. press conference. Russell Moore, a Trussville bus driver and youth pastor, was one of the first to address the mayor and city council. He said his son and four members of his youth group were named in the “death notebook.”
“We were spared what parents in Uvalde and Parkland and other places experienced,” he said. “I thank the Lord we found out ahead of time so that proper action could be taken. A legacy is going to be built, in my opinion, based on what happens in the coming weeks and months.”
Karen Johns, a Trussville resident who previously served as the school system’s athletics director and softball coach, approached the microphone to pre-speech applause. She spoke about servant leadership and the need for it in Trussville.
“[The kids] deserve leadership that lifts them to be bigger and brighter because that’s who we are,” she said before someone in the crowd yelled “Karen Johns for superintendent!”
The call for Neill to resign or be removed from her position as superintendent was a theme throughout the meeting. One woman with a daughter at HTHS, said there is an obligation for Neill to be removed.
“Where is she?” she asked. “We’re here because of her leadership, or lack thereof. Where is she?”
Laura Maddox, a Trussville resident who teaches at Homewood City Schools, said her statement would be simple and clear: “Please remove Pattie Neill from office. I’m going to say it again. Please remove Pattie Neill from office. Today.”
City Council President Perry Cook said the council was trying to be as transparent as possible, something he said he couldn’t say about Neill.
“And I think that’s where it starts,” he said.
Even a Hewitt-Trussville High School employee, Amanda Dobbins, spoke out.
“I don’t care if I get fired tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t care. At some point, we have to stand up.”
Dobbins said she was disappointed no Board of Education members attended the council meeting, and that she understood why many of her coworkers weren’t in attendance. They feared retaliation for speaking out, she said. Dobbins, ensuring she gave proper credit, quoted John Maxwell.
“Communication is the art of leadership,” she said.
Councilwoman Jaime Melton Anderson said communication was “paramount” to her.
“The communication has got to be direct, has got to be immediate,” she said. “You do deserve to feel safe in this community.”
The stories that caused audible gasps continued throughout the night. One woman said her daughter was allegedly assaulted at the high school last year under a stairwell, an incident she said HTHS did not properly address. A police report was filed. The family’s pediatrician recommended removing the daughter from the school. The woman has three other children in Trussville City Schools.
“I’m not going to let it happen to my other three kids,” she said.
One woman said her daughter’s boyfriend was listed in the “death notebook.” She has been terrified for her life, and said she called the Board of Education for next steps. She said she was told that there was nothing to report right now. Another woman said that her daughter, a sophomore, has been “less than impressed” in her first two years of high school. She said an anti-bullying initiative brought to Salem was “shot down” last year.
“Bullying is the name of the game at this school,” she said.
One parent said her 14-year-old texted her about the “death notebook.” She didn’t wait to find out if it was rumor, fantasy or a confirmed threat.
“The fear was real,” she said. “I’m going to get my child. I’m not going to find out too late.”
That same woman said she had a decision to make the next day, whether to send her son back to school or not. Ultimately, she said she trusted in God that he’d be safe.
“But I can’t tell you that I didn’t cry in the driveway when I got home, praying to the Lord that he’d be OK at the end of the day,” she said.
One man told the city council that there is a moral obligation to do what should be done and what can be done. One of his final statements was piercing.
“The next time you gather with parents and students, you don’t want it to be at a funeral.”